Category Archives: Objects

Object of the day: Nkutshu currency (D.R. Congo)

Nkutshu konga konga Basongo Meno boloko Bruno Claessens Collection 961x1024 Object of the day: Nkutshu currency (D.R. Congo)

These enigmatic U-shaped pieces of copper currency were made by Nkutshu blacksmiths for their monetary system. They also traded them with their neighbors, the Basongo Meno, a group of Mongo origin. The Nkutshu called them Konga or Kunga; among the Basongo Meno they were known as Boloko or Okano. The aforementioned considered them important objects and used them both in dowry payments and in the purchase of slaves and big animals. Alfred Mahieu specified their value in Numismatique du Congo 1485-1924 (Brussels, 1924):

  • 1 boloko bought a billy goat,
  • 2 boloko bought one goat or a man slave,
  • 3 boloko were worth a female slave,
  • 10 boloko constituted a normal dowry for a wife.

I found mine on Ebay for much less. The above information is quoted from Roberto Ballarini’s encyclopedic book on African currency, The Perfect Form; with its 415 pages a must have if you’re interested in the subject. These currencies were very rare in the West until the eighties; but with patience and a little luck you can find them at a double-digit price these days – a good example that even on a budget it’s possible to collect authentic African art. Dating these is impossible, but they could be much older than we think – the copper’s surface is amazing up close. Their simple form makes these objects very decorative. Most often they are placed on a base, with the open side upwards. But placing them upside down – which is only possible if the circles on the end are flat and the currency itself isn’t warped – presents a whole new dimension to the objects.

Objects of the day: two Keaka headdresses from Cameroon

 Objects of the day: two Keaka headdresses from Cameroon

Keaka headdress. Image courtesy of the Linden Museum Stuttgart. Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Stuttgart, Germany (#45.455). Height: 22 cm.

As discussed last week here a lot of heavily encrusted figures from the southern Nigeria-Cameroon border are mistakenly identified as Keaka. I illustrated my text with such a Kaka figure, but wanted to take this opportunity to show two headdresses from the Keaka (or Eastern Ejagham) to give an idea of the art they in their turn created. Just as their neighbors the Banyang and Anyang, the Keaka adopted several mask types from the Boki, most notoriously the headdresses (sometimes called crest masks) covered with antelope skin and with a basketwork cap as the base for the dancer’s head. The two examples illustrated here belong to Stuttgart’s Linden Museum in Germany. Unfortunately I couldn’t find any additional information about them but they can most likely be dated as late 19th century (as many similar examples in German museums). Unless the exact provenance is given, It’s not always easy to determine the precise origin of these headdresses, that’s why we often find them listed as Ekoi (the common language in this area). Keaka examples generally distinct themselves by their naturalism (notable in the oval eyes, nose and mouth).

 Objects of the day: two Keaka headdresses from Cameroon

Keaka headdress. Image courtesy of the Linden Museum Stuttgart. Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Stuttgart, Germany (#33.286). Height: 29 cm.

Keaka map Blier Cross River Ejagham Objects of the day: two Keaka headdresses from Cameroon

Map from Blier (S.P.), Africa ́s Cross River. Art of the Nigerian-Cameroon Border Redefined, L. Kahan Gallery, New York, 1980: p. 3.

Kaka or Keaka ? a lingering confusion

 

 Kaka or Keaka ?  a lingering confusion

Kaka figure. Height: 42 cm. Photo by Volker Thomas & Thomas Other, Nürnberg. Image courtesy of the Africarium Collection.

There’s a lot of confusion about these two groups; Kaka works of art (schematically rendered anthropomorphic figures with an encrusted surface) are often mistakenly listed as Keaka. Since they are rather popular in today’s market, I decided to spend some time on the subject.

In 1994, Tribal Arts Magazine published a clarifying article from Pierre Harter (No. 3, September 1994: pp. 45-48), but unfortunately misattributions are still omnipresent. While scholarship points to Kaka, one German dealer/scholar’s attribution to Keaka has been causing a lot of mistakes. Karl-Ferdinand Schaedler was one of the first to publish these figures; he produced a number of books labeling these works of art Keaka. On a visit to Munich, US dealer Jim Willis questioned him and he admitted, “Jim, I just got it wrong. But once it was in my book, most people just don’t want to say Kaka”, scatological associations presumably diminishing respect and thus value (personal communication with Frederick Lamp, 9/6/10). But Schaedler surely wasn’t the only culprit, two other experts (Barry Hecht in Sieber (Roy) & Hecht (Barry), Eastern Nigerian Art from the Toby and Barry Hecht Collection, African Arts, Vol.35, No. 1, Spring 2002: pp. 56-77 and Jill Salmons in Northern (T.), Expressions of Cameroon Art: The Franklin Collection, Los Angeles, 1986: pp. 72-75) proposed a Keaka origin when describing Kaka figures. However, the Keaka and the Kaka are entirely different ethnic groups, though living not far from each other – adding up to the confusion.

The Keaka (or Eastern Ejagham) are one of the numerous Ejagham groups on the southern Nigeria-Cameroon border. They live around Ossing, near the left bank of the Cross River, with a total population number of 8000 people spread among 28 villages. The Keaka are neighboring the Banyang and to the west of the Bangwa. The Keaka, Anyang and Banyang adopted several mask types from the Ekoi groups. They consist of face masks, helmet masks, or whole figures carved in wood and covered with tanned animal skins, with a basketwork cap as the base for the dancer’s head.

Keaka map Ruel Leopards and Leaders not Kaka Kaka or Keaka ?  a lingering confusion

(source: Ruel (M.), Leopards and Leaders, London, 1969: p. 3)

The Kaka (also known as Yamba) have nothing to do with the Keaka. ‘Kaka’ is the Fulani name the Germans gave to the Mfumte, Mbem, Mbaw (Ntem) and Ntong, a cluster of about 18000 peoples living in scattered settlements (ca. 18) just south of the Donga River, on the high plateau near the Cameroon-Nigeria border. They reside south of the Mambila but are more related to their southern Tikar neighbours, with whom they share certain customs. The art of the Kaka was deeply influenced by their neighbours in the Cameroon Grassfields. Their statues and masks, like those of the Bangwa of Cameroon, are often covered with a thick, grainy curst of soot.

Kaka map from Tishman collection not Keaka Kaka or Keaka ?  a lingering confusion

(source: Vogel (Susan M.) (ed.), For Spirits and Kings: African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection, New York, 1981: p. 87)

Also on the origin of their specific patina, there are a lot of different opinions in the literature. Some authors ascribe it to generations of ritual offerings, while others state it is an accumulation of blood sacrifices and ashes. In the trade, the explanation I’ve heard the most is that these objects were hung up to the roof of houses, where the smoke of the central ever-burning fire in time accumulated on the object, generating the observed blackish ‘smoke patina’. Should someone have any additional information on this ‘crust of soot’, please do get in touch.

Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

Vili drum Julio Peabody Essex Museum Salem 352x1024 Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

Vili drum. Height: 100,3 cm. Image courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum (#E6754).

The above Vili drum was donated to the Peabody Essex Museum by Captain William T. Julio in 1843. Julio was the captain of a vessel from Salem and active in the slave trade. Drums of this kind are rather rare. All known examples were collected during the last quarter of the nineteenth century in Loango, a region at the mouth of the Congo river (here another example which the Metropolitan acquired in 1897). There is no certainty about the use and significance of these drums. According to some authors, they were a status symbol for the ruler of the Vili, the Ma-Loango.

This drum is supported by a European man seated on a stool. Possibly this is one of the earliest documented ‘colon’-figures in wood. The man is wearing a black jacket, white pants, black boots, a black, brimmed hat and a hoop earring in his left ear. Possibly it’s a portrait of its collector, made as a souvenir. The figure holds a cup in one hand and a (gin?) bottle in the other. His reddish lower eyelids and squinted eyes do suggest he has already emptied the bottle. I wonder what this says about how the Vili (more specific the carver of this drum) regarded their European visitors ?

Vili drum Julio Peabody Essex Museum Salem head 656x1024 Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

ps The British Museum has a very similar Vili drum in their collection – which they received from Henry Christy after his death in 1865. Christy himself had acquired it from the Haslar Hospital Museum – founded in 1827 and containing artefacts collected by men serving in the British Royal Navy. In my view this example misses the charisma of the above drum, the face being less expressionistic and more rigid in its rendering. It could be a copy or reinterpretation by another Vili carver, but that’s speculation.

Kongo Vili drum figure British Museum Haslar Christy 397x1024 Object of the day: an early 19th century Vili drum (D.R. Congo)

A Vili drum. Height: 103 cm. Image courtesy of the British Museum (#Af.4677).

Photo of the day: the Wunmonije heads

 Photo of the day: the Wunmonije heads

The Wunmonije heads at the British Museum in 1948. Published in Drewal (H.J.) & Schildkrout (E.), Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, 2009: p. 4, fig. 2

In January 1938, two feet below the ground of the Wunmonije Compound in Ife, a cache of bronze heads was uncovered while a foundation for a house was being dug. It would become one of the most important chance finds in the history of African art. Unfortunately no photos of the excavations exist. Shown above are some of the heads unpacked at the British Museum, where the Ooni had sent them in 1948. It’s quite a remarkable scene to see such an important part of Nigeria’s art history placed arbitrary on that table.

The Wunmonije compound, then just behind the palace of the Ooni of Ife, formerly was located within the enclosing palace wall. While clearing away the topsoil the workmen had struck metal and further digging revealed a group of cast heads. Thirteen life-size heads and a half-lifesize half figure were unearthed. Soon after, the same site yielded additional finds of five more works: a life-size head, three smaller heads, and a torso. The identification and function of these heads remain uncertain. It remains a mystery why this cache was ever buried; possibly this hoard once formed part of a royal altar.

Most of the objects found in the Wunmonije Compound ended up in the National Museum of Ife, but a few pieces left Nigeria. One is now in the collections of the British Museum – the head far left on the above picture. It was purchased in Ife by Mr. Bates, then editor of the Nigerian Daily Times and was subsequently acquired by Sir (later Lord) Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, acting on behalf of the National Art Collections Fund, which donated it to the British Museum in 1939. Two heads that were purchased by William Bascom (a research student from Northwestern University, Illiniois, who was based in Ife at the time) in 1938 were later returned to Nigeria as a gift in 1950 – a story documented in an article by Simon Ottenberg (Further Light on W.R. Bascom and the Ife Bronzes, in Africa, Vol. 64, No. 4, 1994: pp. 561-568).

 

 

Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Museum Volkenkunde Leiden mangbetu zande bark box Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 44,5 cm. Image courtesy of the Collection Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden, The Netherlands (#2668-24).

The above bark box was collected by the Dutch explorer Juan Maria Schuver in South Sudan between 1881 and 1883. Unfortunately Schuver didn’t make any notes about this and the three other similar boxes (#2668-25, #2668-26 & #2668-27 – the last one being oval) he collected. We do know for certain that he himself never visited the Mangbetu and Zande region. Possibly he acquired these containers from Zande mercenaries in Sudan or on the market in Khartoum. The early collection date of this example makes it one of the oldest known Zande bark boxes. In the past, these were often described erroneously as honey containers or receptacles for ancestral relics. In fact, they were most often used for holding trinkets, clothing, charms and other personal treasures. Herbert Lang wrote in his field notes about a similar container: ‘A sort of box (nembandi) made of bark and two pieces of wood for a bottom and a cover. They are used to carry the smaller effects of men during voyages and also to store them away in their huts. Most of the objects stored are ornaments, charms, or clothing’. (note 591)

What is interesting about the bark box illustrated above, is the fact that it lacks figurative elements. Most examples in the literature include lids with carved heads on top. There is thus reason to believe that these boxes, like many other forms of Mangbetu and Zande household art, were undergoing changes during the turn of the century. As Schildkrout & Keim demonstrated in African reflections. Art in Northeastern Zaire (University of Washington Press, 1990), the European presence in the region greatly expanded the market for certain types of art. Many chiefs used art to win favor with colonial officials and this new patronage did have consequences for the local material culture. One was that it encouraged the development and spread of certain types of art already present in the region. Artists more and more produced the kinds of works that European and American visitors admired, preferably in the much-loved “Mangbetu style”: an elongated wrapped head and halo-like coiffure which depicted a distinctive turn-of-the-century fashion of upper-class Mangbetu women.

All these objects depicting a Mangbetu-style head were – and  unfortunately often still are – called “Mangbetu” no matter who produced it. In many instances works regarded by collectors and museums as most typically Mangbetu were in fact made by Barambo, Bangba, or Zande artists. The art known as Mangbetu was not the exclusive work of Mangbetu artists, but is rather an expression of the political and cultural preeminence of that group at the time it was created.

This Western influence thus transformed certain kinds of traditional objects: for the first time they became vehicles for anthropomorphic sculpture. Pottery is the prime example – sculpted heads were added to the rich inventory of existing shapes – but bark boxes too underwent a redesign. The above example shows the archetype for this type of object. Below another box with a wooden lid and (stool-like) base added. Next a classic example with the typical Mangbetu-style head. Lastly, a container representing a full figure – where the actual box still only makes up a small segment at the center. In a very short period of time – ca. 30 years – this object type thus was subject of a major adjustment due to external influences. The case of the Uele region is well documented thanks to the findings of the American Museum of Natural History’s Congo Expedition (1909-1915), and makes one wonder what happened in many other parts of the D.R. Congo.

 Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 36,2 cm. Gift of King Leopold to the AMNH in 1907. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

Songo Dekvoi Mangbetu Zande bark box Brill Collection Sothebys 341x1024 Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu or Zande bark box. Height: 52,5 cm. Collection Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The base incised with the artits’s name “Songo Dekvoi”. Reportedly collected before 1911 in Rungu Village, Uele Region. Acquired at Sotheby’s, New York, “The William W.Brill Collection of African Art”, 17 November 2006. Lot Lot 115. (sold for $60.000). Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Mangbetu bark box American Museum of Natural History Lang figure Object of the day: a 19th century Mangbetu or Zande bark box from D.R. Congo

Mangbetu bark box. Height: 33,2 cm. Collected before 1915 by Herbert Lang. Image courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History (#90.1/2221). Expedition field note: Naiso. Carved figure imitating a saluting messenger of white men, the exaggeration of the cartridge belt and the sexual portion is rather a hint at the behavior of these men. They always carry a cartridge belt and also an old muzzle loader. They are never provided with powder or cartridges, but as a rule they behave very arrogant in the absence of white men and often profit of the charms so easily offered by the Mangbetu women. These figures are considered simply funny. The Mangbetu have no idols, though they firmly believe in bad spirits on the road, in the forest, in case of death of any of their chiefs they change the site of their villages.

Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

tungunga Bamun de Vlaminck Ndam nji Mare Makoutam Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

This powerful sculpture is one of my favorite African art objects, I can look at it for hours. It can be attributed to a Bamum workshop in the Makutam region, which produced large scale headcrests, so-called tungunga. It’s talented sculptor found a striking balance between the circular volumes of the eyes, cheeks, and chin; placed below protruding arched brows and surmounted by a dramatically backswept bi-lobed headdress. To its benefit, the blown cheeks of this headcrest are smaller and more schematized than in other examples. The subtle curve of the neck lends the sculpture an additional striking dynamic.

This head crest was sold by Sotheby’s in 2007 for 1,608,000 USD (info). The owner, Saul Stanoff, had bought it at auction in Paris twenty years earlier for 65,000 USD (Loudmer, 2 July 1987, lot 176). Quite a markup ! The fact that the piece was once owned by Maurice de Vlaminck did of course play a role in this story.

Tungunga headcrests were danced in pairs of two and evoked the images of a deceased king and his wife. They were held on top of the head and affixed by a fiber construction hidden underneath a raffia frill. Tungungas were danced by the members of the nsoro, a secret society for warriors. Only those men who had killed an enemy in the field of battle could become members of this society. Tungunga dancers appeared only at funerals of important persons, namely of chiefs, members of the royal family, state ministers, and initiates of the nsoro. The bilobed bonnet of the Stanoff tungunga indicates the representation of a king.

Only a few other examples of this rare type of Cameroon art are known; the one below was collected by Henri Labouret and donated before 1934 to the Musée de l’Homme in Paris (now part of the Musée du quai Branly).

Tungunga Bamoun Labouret quai branly 962x1024 Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

Image courtesy of the Musée du quai Branly (71.1934.171.29).

UPDATE: Sotheby’s Heinrich Schweizer informed me that in his view this head crest in fact wasn’t made by Ndam nji Mare (as I had said earlier, quoting the Rietberg Museum’s Cameroon – Art and Kings). What is a work by Ndam nji Mare is the tungunga in the Malcolm collection (see below) which he discusses in his forthcoming book Visions of Grace: 100 African Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm (coming out in September). Schweizer believes there are at least three different carvers who made this type of head crest. They do look similar, but when handling them one can note many differences in the carving style (eyes, ears), technique (faceted carving vs. smooth surface), patina, wood, etc. Ndam nji Mare was carving a generation later and presumably a follower working in an earlier tradition. He is known by name as he was still active in the 1940s.

 Object of the day: a Bamun head crest from Cameroon

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum 1 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Dreaming about my next holiday, I reminded I still had to post some pictures of my previous field-trip. I had already discussed the African art on view at the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum (here), but still had to show their incredible ensemble of Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago.

They were collected during the winter of 1872-1873 by the then 20 year old French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart. He traveled the Kodiak archipelago by kayak, assembling the largest set of traditionally crafted Alutiiq ceremonial masks in the world; 87 in total. Pinart recognized both the artistic and cultural value of these unique pieces, collecting the names and songs associated with many. When he died in 1911, Pinart bequeathed the masks to the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum. You can discover 65 masks more in detail here.

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum Pinart 1024x813 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum 2 1024x495 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

Boulogne sur Mer Museum Pinart mask 1024x702 Alutiiq masks from the Kodiak archipelago at the Boulogne sur Mer Museum

In 2008, the Alutiiq Museum and the Boulogne-sur-Mer Museum partnered to create an exhibition of 34 masks from Pinart’s Kodiak collection. After 136 years, the masks returned to Alaska for nine months, visiting Kodiak and then Anchorage. An online presentation of that exhibition can be found here.

Trivia of the day: the crystal skull at the Musée du quai Branly once was owned by Pinart (info) !

A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 326x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

Even after many hours of research, the above figure remains an enigma to me. It was once sold as Baule, but its extraordinary size (98 cm high) is very a-typical for Baule anthropomorphic statuary. Focusing on the hairdo, Attié has been suggested. Clearly this figure is very old, perhaps even older than we think. Such an eroded state is also not something one easily encounters in Ivory Coast sculpture. The biggest mystery might be the presence of the large cavity at the center of the back – see the pictures below. So if you have any suggestions about the origin of this figure, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

back mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 292x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

mystery figure Africarium collection Vérité June 2006 lot 235 cavity 1016x1024 A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

Image courtesy of the Africarium collection.

UPDATE: a reader was so kind to mail me this male Baule figure from the Herbert Baker collection, which, at 105 cm, is even taller. The back of the figure apparently is as eroded, though the face obviously is in a much better condition and has some kind of crown on top. Next to size, the elongated body and small hands are indeed very similar to the Vérité figure. But if our figure is indeed Baule, what about the cavity?

Herbert Baker Baule figure A mystery figure from the Vérité Collection

UPDATE 2: Several people have suggested Mbembe (looking at the arms, hair and surface)

Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893-1898

Boa figure Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x717 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Boa figure. Height: ca. 50 cm.

The above Boa figure was collected by Camille D’Heygere. D’Heygere was stationed in the Congo Free State between 1893 and 1898, first as a deputy prosecutor in Boma, later as a judge in New Antwerp. His collection was sold last week at a small auction in Brussels; all objects were heavily underestimated – which of course attracted a lot of attention. The above Boa figure was sold for € 61,000. Only a handful Boa figure are known, among which three by the same hand as this one. Two other objects with this same provenance were sold: a Mbole figure (which made € 68,000) and a Hungana pendant – sold for € 26,000. All three objects were never published before. The early provenance makes this Mbole figure possibly the first to arrive in the West.

UPDATE: the Mbole figure was bought by Pierre Dartevelle (who exhibited it during Parcours des Mondes 2014) and the Boa figure was acquired by Bernard de Grunne (who showed it during the Biennale des Antiquaires, also in Paris).

Mbole Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x719 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Mbole figure. Height: ca. 70 cm.

Hungana ivory pendant Congo Camille DHeygere 1024x606 Object of the day: A rediscovered Boa figure, collected between 1893 1898

Hungana pendant. Height: ca. 8 cm.